Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Free" Time

Just this week I was marveling that I had not yet been asked to do any departmental work this summer, then wham.. I got 'asked' to do two things: read an undergraduate honors thesis (by tomorrow, because the professor who was supposed to do it is away) and serve on a grad student committee for an exam. Professors are not paid by the university in the summer, but we are expected to 'volunteer' for these activities because [select explanation from menu of options below].

#1: It's not the students' fault that faculty don't get paid by the university in the summer, yet student schedules for exams, theses, etc. don't always fit into the academic year.

#2: We get paid enough during the other 9 months, so we should work for free during the summer.

#3: We have lots of free time in the summer, so we might as well spend some of it doing administrative work.

The best explanation, at least in the case of faculty who are active year-round in research, is #1, but I've heard the other two expressed. I don't mind doing some student-related work in the summer, but I do mind the situations in which I am asked to do something just because I am here in the department and some of my colleagues are not. Some of my out-of-town colleagues are out of town for research-related reasons, but some are taking the summer off. That's fine, they can do that because they aren't being paid by the university or by grants, but it means more summer 'volunteer' work for the rest of us.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Now that the academic year is over, it seems that reviewers and editors (including FSP) are getting caught up with their tasks. Yesterday I wrote about some reviews I received. Soon after, I got an email from someone who was reviewing another manuscript of mine.

I hate it when this person reviews my manuscripts because he always writes to tell me that he is doing the review, has some possible problems with my interpretations, suggests that we 'discuss' it, and then he asks me for a favor. Once he asked me to pay for his travel to the U.S. This time he asked me to do some analyses for him. Sometimes I request that this person not review my manuscripts, and I give a vague reason like "conflict of interest", though I didn't do that with this manuscript.

This particular unethical reviewer I've just described is the only one I've encountered who does this. I think it is a rare situation, but it raises the general and more relevant issue of how and whether to suggest that someone not review your manuscript or proposal.

Most journals (and NSF) give authors an option of listing "non-preferred reviewers". I don't like to use this option if at all possible. In an ideal world, we are all objective and will focus only on the Science. But back in the real world, there are people who should not review certain (or any) papers/proposals, and sometimes editors and program directors don't know who these people are without some information. If a reason must be given, "conflict of interest" is vague but professional. Somehow I have never felt comfortable writing things like "He harassed my postdoc" or "He asked me for money the last time he reviewed one of my papers".

If I don't have direct experience with someone's giving me an unfair review, I don't list them as a non-preferred reviewer. I would never use a suspicion that someone might be unfair as a reason to request that they not review something of mine. Delusional though it may be, it's best to give someone the benefit of the doubt unless there is evidence to the contrary.

As an editor, when I see non-preferred reviewers listed, sometimes I know the situation and can evaluate whether the list is valid, but in other cases I wonder why. I typically respect the wishes of the authors unless their list is long and includes everyone with any expertise in their subject. In these cases, the list of preferred reviewers is typically loaded with the names of the authors' friends and former co-authors. [memo to authors: Don't do this.]

I am sometimes asked whether it "looks bad" if you list non-preferred reviewers, as if you are afraid of criticism and not confident about the excellence of your paper. The advice I give is basically what I described above: if you have a concrete reason for requesting that someone be excluded from reviewing your work, you should do it. If you just have a suspicion, don't do it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Not My Best Work

Today I got reviews back for a manuscript that has been languishing in review for an absurdly long period of time: nearly a year. Fortunately, the reviews were positive, which lessens my annoyance quite a bit.

This manuscript is on a topic extremely peripheral to my usual research topics, and that also decreased my stress about it, although the fact that my co-authors and I spent considerable time on the research and writing of course means I/we have a strong interest in seeing the paper published.

The three reviews are also very helpful, which is always nice. One thing that amused me, though, is that the reviews all say things like: interesting paper, great idea, nice dataset blah blah blah, but then one says that, despite being a valuable contribution that should be published, "This paper does not represent [Professor FSP's] very best work." Well, I happen to agree with that, but if I only published my 'very best' work, would I publish anything ever? Would I ever write anything, scientific or blogific? Can I get an A for effort anyway because I worked really hard on this paper?

I'm not complaining about the reviews -- they are very constructive and will help a lot with the revisions.

I think the 'best work' comment is funny because my daughter's elementary school teachers are always telling the kids to do their 'best work', and my daughter and I have had numerous conversations about what exactly that means (neither of us is sure). I am still not sure, despite being officially told today that I didn't do my best work with this paper.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Would Einstein Use a Spell-Checker?

Many people are fond of asking whether today's academic culture and rules would stifle or squelch Einstein's genius. I think he would do just fine, but even if not, I really think it is time to stop using him as an example. Would Einstein have written his brilliant papers if .. ? etc.

One of the most annoying Einstein comparisons is: "Einstein couldn't spell". I don't know whether he could or couldn't, and I am sure that spelling ability does not correlate absolutely with intelligence. However, whenever one of my students tries the "Einstein couldn't spell either" excuse on me, I ask them whether they think Einstein would have used a spell-checker before giving a document to his advisor. Perhaps geniuses are above spell-checking?

Maybe so, and maybe I am stifling genius left and right by expecting a basic level of technical editing before a student gives me a manuscript to read. I don't expect the content to be perfect -- that's something to work out through discussion and revision -- but it's a lot easier to revise content when the technical elements are not a mess.

In fact, I think it can be a bit of a morale boost and motivator if you make your manuscript draft 'look' like a paper early on. Maybe that makes it scarier for some people if what they've written starts to look like an official paper too soon, but I like to deal with the technical elements from the beginning.

After spending considerable time today slogging through and fixing references in a student's manuscript (long story why he isn't doing this himself), it is clear to me yet again that having a good system for references and other technical elements from the beginning really saves a lot of time (for everyone involved, genius and non-genius alike).

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Not The Sharpest Knife

In many (most?) cases I let rude comments to this blog appear along with the others. Exceptions include obscene comments (who are these people?) and what I will characterize as the boring rude comments. There were some excellent examples of boring rude comments on my last post about blondeness: a number of these commenters pointed out that my post was proof that I am a dumb blonde. Perhaps I am too dumb to follow their reasoning? I just laughed and rejected the comments.

In any case, these comments did inspire me to revisit the topic of What It Takes To Succeed in the research aspects of academia. I think I am a good example of someone who has succeeded without being brilliant (or stupid, I might add). Being a successful Science Professor at a research university requires more than just intelligence. I've seen plenty of very smart/brilliant people wash out because they lacked some necessary elements for succeeding in today's academic environment. (note: there are of course many reasons why people leave academia, and many of these reasons do not involve failure to succeed).

Two examples of these necessary elements are

(1) being able to finish a project (this is in many cases directly connected to being able to write/communicate).

The ability to finish a project -- or, what is more likely, to finish different stages of a project and publish results from those stages -- is clearly important for demonstrating productivity. Some people can do this easily, some people can do it with difficulty but still get it done, and some just can't do it. Those in the latter category include some very smart people. The two main obstacles are an inability to write and an inability to focus.

(2) having new ideas, or at least new versions of a very good initial idea

Some people do well with their Ph.D. thesis and perhaps also a postdoc if it involves a defined project, but when they are out on their own, they don't have any new ideas. Their proposals get rejected and their research program never goes anywhere.

I think I've gotten as far as I have as a medium-sharp knife in large part by being productive in terms of research results and publications, as well as by letting my research evolve in new directions. The fact that I like to write and that it comes easily to me has been a huge help to me in my academic career. I wouldn't trade my writing abilities for more IQ points.

The continuing success of my research also owes a lot to having excellent collaborators. It's important that such collaborations be sub-equal and complementary -- you each bring something useful and interesting to the collaboration, and you find a good balance in terms of who is leading various aspects of the collaborative research. This is a way of getting involved in many new projects (increasing productivity..) and having lots of fun doing the research. This is easier to do once you become more senior. When you are more junior, you have to worry about getting enough credit for your research.

So, even if you're not brilliant: if you are smart, can get things done, and can think of new things to do, you've got most of what it takes to be a science professor.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Blogging While Blonde

There are reasons (discussed long ago in this blog) for why I have the weird blonde hair picture as part of my profile. The issue of women being defined by their hair color is of course not confined to academia. Those following the US political news of recent events in Washington DC will perhaps have noted that reports of testimony by a former Justice Department aide, Monica Goodling, seem unable to write about her testimony without reference to her hair:

Examples culled with very little effort from the news reports:

"Monica Goodling doesn’t have to worry her pretty li’l blonde head .." (

"Justice Is Blonde" (

"Monica Goodling, the blonde-ling underling to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.." (

".. when Goodling--looking demure in fresh blonde highlights.." (

" Dumb blonde: It's a terrible stereotype, but Monica Goodling really didn't do so well by the blonde and high voiced yesterday." (

".. Goodling's got long blonde locks, that were brushed straight and then curling upwards.."

And then there are the inevitable references to the movie "Legally Blonde".

I also learned, again without much effort, that her actual hair color is 'dishwater blonde'. I think that is a *nice* way of saying 'dirty blonde', but using the description 'dirty blonde' would of course be unprofessional.

The most bizarre comments state or imply that she somehow represented blonde women of the world. I am pretty sure that the last time we blonde women had our secret convention and elected representatives, she was not one of them.

There is much to criticize about this woman and her actions in her former job, but her hair color really isn't one of them.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Closed Door

When I am in my office during the day, I almost always keep my door open. I like that my students and colleagues can stop by any time and chat or ask questions. I'm sure I'd get more done without the interruptions, but I'd much rather have the interactions. I close my door when I have something urgent to accomplish by a deadline and need to minimize interruptions.

Today my door is closed, but not because of a looming deadline. My door is closed because I am being harassed by a random person who walked into the department one day last week, saw my door open, came in, and has made a habit of doing so every day since. His visits have been annoying and it is difficult to get him to leave my office. He's clearly a deeply strange person, but only yesterday did he really disturb me when he asked me for money and became upset when I didn't give him any. Mostly he has been stopping by in the afternoons, but today he was in the department early, asking people where I was, and asking for my contact information because he said he was going to work for me. Everyone who met him was disturbed by their encounter with him and told me to call the police.

I have been very reluctant to call the police. Asking for money is not a crime, and this is a public building. I called the campus police today because my department chair asked me to, but the police were not helpful. The person I talked to said "What do you want us to DO?" I guess I just wanted to see if other people on campus have reported disturbing encounters with this person, and I wanted to make a record of his 'suspicious activities'. The police said to call them if this man comes to my office again.

Yesterday during my disturbing encounter with the strange man, I considered reaching for the phone to call a colleague, but the way I have my office set up is not convenient for such things. I would have had to turn my back on the guy. Also, my crazy visitor was between the office door and me, so I was backed into a corner.

This is my third encounter with a scary crazy person in my office in the past 10 years, and each time I have considered changing the organization of my office, and then I don't. I suppose it is human nature to try to forget about a bad, random experience and hope it won't happen again, but another part of it for me is that I don't want to arrange my office in a really inconvenient way because of anxiety. I have been trying to figure out if there's a way I can arrange my office so that I'm not constantly reminded that it's arranged that way to give me an escape route, but there are some serious architectural limitations to this. But then I think maybe I am being foolish not to rearrange things, since I've had these anxious encounters several times now and perhaps I should learn from experiences.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Abacus v. Supercomputer

In my general research field, there are various methods for data acquisition and organization that can be accomplished with technology of various levels of complexity, time, and cost. For some methods, the technologically most advanced methods are definitely the best or only way to go, but there are at least some situations in which there is a choice between a lower-tech and a higher-tech method. This latter situation can set up a bit of a conflict between professors and students/postdocs.

Two examples:

- An MS student has repeatedly questioned why he/she has to use a low-tech method to acquire, somewhat tediously, some data that could be acquired more rapidly with a higher-tech method. I say 'more rapidly' because the actual acquisition time once the machine is on and ready for analysis can be fairly rapid, but this technique becomes much less rapid when the substantial (and tedious) preparation time is considered. In any case, with the low-tech method, you can get data any time you want, and the amount of data one gets is limited only by your time. This technique also has the pedagogical advantage of not being a 'black box' that magically gives you numbers. In the higher-tech method, in which this student is not trained and is unlikely to be trained on the timescale of the degree program, the student has to rely on other people to get the data and will get a much more limited dataset. And then there is the issue of $$. The low-tech method is essentially free; the high-tech method is not. The student is working on a project with limited funds available for research expenses. You do the math, either on an abacus or supercomputer. The plan I worked out is that the student will get some high-tech data (with assistance from other people) using the limited available funds, and will supplement these with however much low-tech data can be reasonably acquired. I think that is a good plan, but the student does not yet see the awesome professorial wisdom of my plan, despite my attempts at explanation. Perhaps the student has been reading too much mythology, in which people are assigned endless useless and tedious tasks as punishment for random things?

- There is another technique that my and other students have a tendency to use for a certain data organization method. This method involves complex and expensive software that doesn't talk to any other software and that occasionally is updated to new versions that don't work with older versions. In some cases, you lose the ability even to see your data ever again. I hate this software. What is more, even if you do everything right, this software does not produce a result that is immediately usable -- you end up copying parts of it to a cheaper and more accessible program anyway. I've had quite a number of conversations with colleagues in which we share stories of all the time and data our students have lost in this software black hole, and how difficult it is to convince them to use simpler but less cool software from the very beginning. My preference is that the data be stored in more than one place -- if some of it has to go into The Software From Hell, it should also be saved in some other, more accessible format as well. Some students react to this as if I'd asked them to enter their data in a ledger using a quill pen and ink made from lampblack.

With reference to mythology again, there are stories of humans being given eternal youth, a mixed blessing if the people around you age and die. Professors rather famously have the opposite situation: we get older and older and our students are always young. And as we get older, it becomes more likely that our youthful students will think we are asking them to use antiquated methods just because we used these methods when we were students.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Gray No More

Today I emerged from the proposal nether gray zone void in the best way possible: with a new grant. I got the email from the program director today, clicked on it and had that heart-stopping moment of not being sure if the first line would read "It is with great regret.." or "It is with great pleasure..". I sort of squinted my eyes but I saw the word 'pleasure' and felt such immense joy and relief. It is going to be a really fun project, with a really great colleague, and the grant has funds for a new postdoc and student. I feel extremely fortunate today.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

They Pay You?

This weekend I was chatting with one of my neighbors about where her son might go to college after he graduates from high school next year. One of her priorities for her son's college education is that he not have to take out immense student loans. She remarked that I must have had a lot of student loans from all my years in grad school. I explained that I didn't take out any loans for grad school because I had an assistantship that paid tuition and a salary, and that this was common in many of the sciences. (I spent a lot of time in grad school filling out paperwork so that my undergrad loans were deferred until I finished my Ph.D., but fortunately I didn't have any new loans.)

She thought this being-paid-to-go-to-school thing was a bit of a 'scam'. I've heard that sentiment before, including from some of my relatives who didn't understand why I didn't have to pay for grad school when their children or other people they knew had to pay for other types of graduate programs. I suppose part of the disconnect relates to the fact that it's not obvious to the average non-scientific citizen that the physical sciences are important. We scientists could do a better PR job with this. I don't know if there's any way to avoid at least some of the "I hated (insert math, chemistry, and/or physics) in school" response, but it would be nice if there were less of this and more understanding of why what we do is important, or at least important enough for universities to pay graduate students in these fields.

I haven't even been able to convince some of my own relatives, though, so I don't have any illusions about it's being easy to change the general view of (non-medical) scientists. I've even had relatives say to me "It's too bad your parents had to pay so much money to put you through graduate school", but then when I tell them that my parents paid no money to put me through graduate school, they say "You mean taxpayers paid for that?", as if it's somehow a waste of money, even if they aren't sure whose money is being wasted.

My neighbor's father seems to be in the same situation with respect to his relatives, or at least with respect to his daughter: he is a science professor at the same university where I work.

Friday, May 18, 2007

On Hold

This week I tried to organize my thoughts about manuscripts and proposals that are in some form of active state: either in preparation or in review or in revision. To make a bad analogy with juggling, there are always some balls (or flaming torches, depending on how you look at it) in the air and some in hand, and the proportion of things that are in the air vs. in hand can vary considerably from time to time depending on various factors, some of which I control and some of which I don't.

The part that is in my control -- sort of [insert herding cat analogy re. advising students and working with colleagues] -- is to keep the various research projects moving along. The part I can't control is how long a review will take once I send a manuscript off.

At the present time, I seem to have an unusual number of things in the air (= in review), some for an unusually long period of time. This is surely a random occurrence, and my fear is that everything will come back from review at the same time, no matter that I submitted some of them months before others. I would prefer a gentle trickle of manuscripts with constructive and positive reviews to appear throughout the summer, but that is a delusional academic fantasy.

Much more likely are reviews containing comments such as these recently received by one of my grad students:

Reviewer 1: "Unfortunately the manuscript is poorly written" and "unacceptable for publication".

Reviewer 2: "The data are clearly presented..and the results are superb .. It is well-written and I suggest that the paper be published with only very minor revision."

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Evaluating Others

Speaking of evaluations.. like many university faculty in the past month or two, I recently filled out a survey as part of the NRC rating process. Earlier in the year I filled out a form involving information to be used by the NRC for ranking my own department; this latest survey involved my ranking 15 other departments (the so-called 'reputational ranking' part of the process).

I've talked with other colleagues about how we each went about our rankings; not about our actual rankings, but about our methods. We each got a wide-ranging list that included at least one of the supposed top-ranked departments in our field as well as some schools we didn't even know had a Ph.D. program in our field. The information provided up front included the number of graduate faculty, various data about Ph.D.'s awarded, and demographic data about the number of women and ethnic minority faculty.

Some of my colleagues said they did their survey very quickly because they already had opinions about the places on their lists and they didn't need to look at the data provided or read information on a department's webpages. This raises questions about how to rank unfamiliar departments. That is, if you don't know anything about a particular Ph.D. program, couldn't name any faculty in that department, and don't know anyone who got a Ph.D. there, does that mean the program is deficient or does it mean that you should check the 'no opinion/insufficient info' option because perhaps the program is strong in a sub-field different from your own?

Others spent a lot of time reading all the information provided and following links to other webpages. I didn't spend a huge amount of time on the survey, but I also didn't blast through it without considering the data. I had opinions about all but perhaps one place on my list prior to getting the survey, but I didn't want to fall into the trap of rating a program high just because it was always rated high. I wanted to think about each place in terms of its program in recent years, not what it was like > 10 years ago.

Some faculty approached their surveys by considering each of the programs on their list in the context of the 15 programs on the list, and some viewed each in a context beyond the list of 15. I did the latter, but I assume that the ultimate dataset will be large enough so that these variations won't matter in the end. It might not matter anyway if each list is constructed to include a wide variety of programs.

Another issue we discussed is whether the demographic data about faculty gender and ethnicity is an indicator of the quality of a program, and why those data are reported up front in this survey and not information about faculty publications and funding. We all agreed that we would have liked more information on traditional measures of a department's research activities.

What do you think? All other things being equal between 2 large departments, should a total lack of women faculty in one result in its getting a lower ranking, and, if so, a slightly lower ranking or a substantially lower ranking?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Evaluating Teaching Evaluations

Teaching evaluations are best viewed in a general, cosmic, slightly unfocused way as an indicator of some aspects of a teacher's methods and effectiveness. I just got my spring evaluations yesterday, and I am pleased with the results, but that won't stop me from musing about the bad (and good) aspects of evaluations.

I think that if you look at someone's teaching evaluations for a range of classes (small and large, majors and non-majors, graduate and undergraduate) over 3-5 years, you will get a sense for whether that person is a 'good' teacher or not. Ideally, 'good' means interesting, caring, challenging, accessible, organized, and fair, and doesn't correlate with a propensity to give A's for mediocre work and effort.

At my previous university, I had 2 teaching mentors who sat in on my classes at random times during the semester and provided me with feedback. They were supposed to tell me in advance when they would be sitting in, but they didn't. This was fine with me because it meant they saw the class more as it was on a routine day, rather than on a day when I had prepared in a different way knowing I'd be monitored. I didn't really get any useful feedback from these teaching mentors except about some technical issues on how to more effectively use the A/V equipment in the classroom. Even so, I liked the fact that there was an additional evaluation method of my teaching other than just the student evaluations.

At my present university, our only feedback comes from the teaching evaluations that students fill out at the end of each semester, so these evaluations are the sole evidence for whether we are good teachers or not. That's why it's important that the evaluation process be improved.

Problems with the current process (written from the perspective of someone teaching at a large university):

1. Some of the questions are strange, irrelevant, offensive: I have written about this before, but some of the primary questions that are the basis for the quantitative aspect of the evaluations are inappropriate, e.g.,

- A question about the physical environment of the classroom asks students to rate me on something over which I have no control.

- A question about how the students would rate the professor's knowledge of the course material is offensive as written. That question could be worded to ask how effective the professor is at conveying their knowledge to students, rather than asking the student how much they think the professor knows.

- A question about how much a student learned in the course is not only rating the effectiveness of the teacher, but also how much effort the student put into the course. Sometimes the two are related (students may put more effort into an interesting and well-taught class), but sometimes they are not. A student who does not attend class regularly and doesn't do assignments etc. will not learn much in the course, yet he/she gets to rate how much they learned in the course as part of the evaluation of the professor's teaching. In theory, these students are a small minority and their low ratings will be outliers in an overall positive evaluation, but their effect on the evaluation depends on class size.

The questions I think are good and useful include:

- A very general question on the professor's overall teaching ability.

- A question or questions about the professor's level of respect, concern, accessibility for students.

- A question about whether graded work is returned in a timely way.

Even for those questions, a student who is not doing well in a course will in some cases give a professor a low rating, but again, if the class size is sufficiently large, these will be outliers.

And then there are the detailed comments. Reading these can be alternately heart-warming and enraging. I am fortunate that this semester I got the heart-warming kind. More typically there are at least a few that will say "I wish you had done X", where X is something unreasonable (e.g., "I wish you could have given us all the answers to the quiz questions in advance so that we could have studied them.").

And of course there is no chance for rebuttal/response, and there is no way to fix any problems for that specific class. That can be frustrating.

In summary: it's a flawed process that sort of works in a general way.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Teaching Professors

It might seem kind of strange that I am still thinking so much about teaching, just as the semester has ended. However, I am still working with students who had medical/family emergencies and have to make up some assignments, labs, and exams, so the semester isn't completely over. In addition, grad/undergrad research advising doesn't end with the school year, and I am also working on some of the teaching modules that I help prepare as part of a group working on science education issues. I enjoy creating these teaching modules and sharing my ideas and knowledge about interesting science topics. It's the same stuff that I use in my own teaching, but knowing that these materials (text, images, exercises) will be available to the world can be daunting. Everything in these modules has to be absolutely clear and self-contained.

When I have participated in workshops in which I've presented my teaching materials to other professors, I am often aware that some teaching methods and materials aren't easily transferred to others. To teach well, you have to be very comfortable with the subject material, and ideally have deeper knowledge than what you are presenting in class. It's best if some of this knowledge comes from experience, though of course we can't have that type of knowledge about all the concepts we teach. Some of that kind of knowledge and experience takes time to acquire, but even for early-career teachers, being confident (but not over-confident..) and caring about what you teach can go a long way. I have one colleague who cares a lot about teaching but who lacks confidence; 'good' students appreciate her efforts and her caring, and 'struggling' students can be very savage about her lack of confidence, and that can undermine her confidence further, making it harder to acquire what she needs to progress as an effective teacher.

I know several professors in my field who are outstanding teachers now but who were really awful teachers when they first started, so there is hope. These professors knew they were awful and they didn't want to be, and they eventually figured out how to do better, and even to excel. Now it's hard to imagine that they were ever awful teachers. I know a few professors who teach a limited amount because they are terrible teachers. Is there nothing to be done to help them improve, or are the required changes in personality and teaching methods too drastic?

It's not easy to make dramatic changes, and it's not easy to know how to evaluate/define what makes an effective and excellent teacher. I've team-taught a class with someone who spent the semester providing erroneous and out-of-date information to students but who got high teaching evaluations. Is he a good teacher because he presents information clearly, or he is a bad teacher because of the problems with his course content? I've also team-taught the same class with someone who did an outstanding job presenting interesting and innovative course content, but the students found him intense and unapproachable; his evaluations were lousy. Is he a bad teacher?

I don't know -- I am good at providing ideas for teaching materials and some aspects of the logistics of teaching, but not good at giving useful advice to people about how to be better teachers. That's a job for the education experts, as long as they don't spend too much time trying to convince us to exchange course content for pedagogical games with cute nicknames.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Buying Time

In my department, our teaching loads are somewhat flexible depending on department teaching needs and other factors. Some of my colleagues in other departments/universities, however, have very rigid teaching loads, and the only way to get the load reduced is to buy out a class with grant money acquired for that purpose. My impression is that such buy-outs are more common in the humanities, but I do know some science departments that are organized that way.

One of my colleagues plans her course release requests for when she needs them most in the context of her research activities, but in her department, a class is canceled if faculty take a course release. This causes huge problems for students, so some faculty never take course releases. Departments with adjunct faculty can deal with this situation more easily than departments in which it isn't practical or possible to hire an adjunct to teach a course.

With all due respect to hard-working adjunct faculty, I will say that I don't think it is a healthy situation when teaching loads are organized such that faculty can't adequately balance research and teaching without buying course releases. This also sends the message (to students and others) that faculty only teach if they have to, and if given the chance, will spend more time on research. Yes, I know that is true of some faculty, but many faculty value both.

I realize it isn't practical for all departments, but ideally teaching loads are flexible enough so that when averaged over time (e.g., over 3 years or so), faculty teaching loads are about the same for everyone in a department, but in any given year, the load can be adjusted depending on various priorities (including faculty research activities). Visiting faculty and adjuncts can teach classes when faculty are on sabbatical, especially since most sabbatical arrangements involve faculty being paid 50% of their salary, with the rest reverting to the department or other administrative unit (which can then hire a short-term replacement to teach classes).

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Research : Teaching : Service

The research : teaching : service ratio by which many of us are evaluated in our annual reviews has always puzzled me in terms of how it actually works. It puzzles me even though I've been on the committee that does this evaluation for my department: the committee members independently come up with evaluations without discussion with each other and then the department chair makes the ultimate decisions based in part on these recommendations. We never know exactly what he decides (or why). We each get a letter with our salary data, but no other information or evaluation information. Other departments/universities do things more strictly by a point system, though from what I've heard, that approach can be gratuitously stressful and too rigid.

Part of the mystery has to do with the fact that the research : teaching : service numbers (45 : 45 : 10, for example) don't have any meaning in terms of describing how we really spend our time (e.g., in reality, research time >> teaching time).

There are other ambiguous aspects of how faculty are evaluated: Let's say that the expected teaching load in my department is 2.5 classes per year, and that I teach 2.5 classes in a year. Does that mean that I have done well or that I am only average for teaching that year? If I am only average, what are the implications for my annual review (which I never see)? Teaching evaluations are also important in the evaluation, of course, but is it better to teach more and get average teaching evaluations or to teach less and get better evaluations? And what about grad teaching/advising and serving on grad committees? Is that teaching, research, or service? It has elements of all three; some of my colleagues think it is mostly research, some think it is mostly teaching, and some think it is mostly service (it would be interesting to plot these opinions vs. the number of grad advisees each professor has).

In my department, it's also not clear what the research expectations are except that we should do as much as possible. That's what I do anyway, so the ambiguities of the research expectations don't bother me. It's not as if I'm going to do more or less research depending on some arbitrary standard.

A friend of mine who is a department chair at a big research university told me that in his department, the Dean sets the 'bar' for research expectations and it is set at a level corresponding to the highest-performing faculty members -- the ones bringing in millions of $$ in funding and running big labs that produce a lot of papers with the PI as co-author. If the bar is set there, most faculty get lower evaluations, even if they are doing really well by almost any normal standard. My friend says this system is really bad for morale, especially for assistant professors. Hearing that made me feel grateful for my department's more mysterious but more holistic system.

The expectations for the 'service' part of the job can also be ambiguous in terms of what we have to do to meet or exceed the expectations for that component. Part of the mystery has to do with the fact that service involves such a wide range of possible activities: department/college/university service (committees), professional service (reviewing papers and proposals, serving on panels, being an editor, holding office in professional organizations), and outreach (visiting schools, judging science fairs etc.). Are all of these equal in value? What about giving invited talks at other universities? Is that service, research, both?

I think these issues are particularly important for assistant professors who need to know what the tenure criteria are, and for senior professors facing a negative post-tenure review. For example, should early career faculty agree to serve on administrative committees and teach a graduate seminar in addition to their regular teaching load and is it OK to decline to do some reviews? For early career faculty, service should of course be minimal, but professional service activities that give you visibility in your field can be important.

Everyone has to find their own balance in terms of what they can manage, but the two priorities are to be a productive researcher and to be a good teacher.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Teaching at a Research University

Yesterday, when I wasn't reading the headlines in The Onion, I also read the New York Times' 57 millionth article on Harvard: "Harvard Task Force Calls for New Focus on Teaching and Not Just Research".

Items in the article that caught my eye included a quotation from an undergraduate: “You go to a liberal arts college for the teaching. You come to Harvard to be around some of the greatest minds on earth.” I wonder what that 'be around' part entails, if it isn't teaching. Does the greatness of those great minds diffuse somehow to the undergrads because the great minds are talking to people who talk to people who teach the students? I don't know how that works, but I am hoping that it means there are lots of chances for undergraduates to be involved in research or seminar series with the great minds, and it isn't all indirect.

I went to a liberal arts college as an undergrad (and taught briefly at one as a professor), but have mostly been at large research universities since then (grad student, postdoc, professor). There have been professors dedicated to teaching and research excellence at all of these places. I'm not sure why it is either/or at some universities; many professors at large universities value both, and I do not believe that research suffers. Of course, teaching loads have to be reasonable, but it is entirely possible to do research, supervise a research group, and teach classes (even a large introductory level class). Perhaps some great minds can't do both and that's fine, as long as administrators (like Harvard's Dean of the Arts & Sciences Grad School) recognize things like this:

"We can’t just mention excellent teachers occasionally. We have to notice and reward their efforts consistently.” Yes!

The article mentions Harvard, Amherst, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale. The latter two, along with small colleges like Amherst, "are known for their commitment to both" teaching and research. So it is possible.

I was talking recently with colleagues from various large research universities about the expected ratio of research : teaching : service in their departments/universities. In my small survey, most faculty have a ratio of 40 : 40 : 20 or 45 : 45 : 10. A few places allow for variation of +/- 10 to account for different career stages, paths, interests, abilities. I did not encounter anyone who had a major imbalance in the expected ratio of research to teaching. Of course, there may be differences in the actual accounting of research and teaching activities, but that's another issue.

Women of The Onion

I have been perusing The Onion's special "Women's Issue", just in time for Mother's Day on Sunday. As usual, the headlines are the best part, and there's no need to read the actual articles (some headlines don't even have accompanying articles). My favorite headlines:

"Betty Friedan Honored With Second-Class Postage Stamp"


"Slightly Upset Woman Declared Insane"

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Poster Child for Women in Science

I was recently at a meeting that involved a wide range of faculty and administrators from my general field of the physical sciences. During one of the organized social events, I talked with several FSP's I had never met before. We talked about our research, teaching, other aspects of our professional lives, and our families.

After talking about these kinds of things for a while, one of the FSP's said to me, "You are like a poster child for women in science."

I'm like a seriously ill child who makes people feel sorry for her so they will be sympathetic to a particular cause? I know she didn't meant that exactly; the term 'poster child' has come to be commonly used to mean 'a good example of' [something], but the FSP who made the poster child comment hastened to explain anyway. She did in fact mean it in a nice way, and her intention was to say that I am a good example of an FSP who balances all the things we have to balance in this job and yet I have a life and I enjoy my job and so on. OK, that's fine. The comment took me aback for a moment, but then I laughed. I think my only poster-related activities will involve the kind I do at conferences though.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


What Would Your Advisor Do? I went to a faculty meeting recently, knowing in advance that one of my colleagues was going to say, as he tends to do: "X says that.." or "X thinks that.." (X = his former advisor at a distant university). To him, X's opinions are profound and definitive and should guide discussions and planning in our department.

Before the meeting, a different colleague and I had discussed whether, on the occasion of hearing these magic words, we would say something like:

"Well, MY advisor thinks.." (even if we hadn't spoken to our former advisors in ages and were making it all up),

or possibly: "Hey, let's all go around the table and say what we think our former advisors would say about this topic!"

But that would be mean. In any case, we were thwarted because our advisor-worshiping colleague said, instead, "I talked to someone about this, and he or she told me ...". We all knew he was talking about his former advisor, but I guess he figured out that he'd better place a bit more distance between himself and The Great One.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Women's Insight In Engineering

I was interested to see an advertised tenure-track position for an engineering professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL). The position is open to any field of engineering, but is restricted to women. The purpose is of course to increase the number of women engineering professors at EPFL in particular and Switzerland in general.

This seems like an extreme measure, and I'm curious as to whether less extreme mechanisms for hiring women were first tried: e.g., having women participate in hiring committees and ensuring that talented women applicants for open positions are given full consideration.

The position involves an endowed professorship, and therefore it may come with some status, but I also wonder how a woman hired for a position that specifies it is for a woman engineer will be viewed by her colleagues. Presumably a talented woman will be hired and will be respected as much as any faculty member (??).

Some of my engineering colleagues, some of whom have spent sabbaticals in Switzerland, think that the weirdest part of the ad is the part that says that the position is intended "to promote women's insight in engineering". My colleagues and I were joking about this -- wondering if it meant that the woman is supposed to bring a 'feminine touch' to her engineering research. Then we wondered what 'women's insight in physics' or 'women's insight in chemistry' might be like.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Multi-Tasking for Sanity

I have not completely solved the problem of feeling brain-damaged during and after doing a significant amount of grading, but I have discovered a partial solution that has been working well for me tonight: I am acquiring data in my lab at the same time that I am grading. This only works if the graded materials don't require undivided attention for lengths of time greater than the time required for the lab activity. Fortunately, I have been able to work it out tonight so that I can bounce between lab things and grading things in such a way that I am getting something scientific done and making progress with grading. And even when I'm grading, I feel happy knowing that things are moving along in the lab at the same time. This is the best kind of multi-tasking.

Little by little, the pile of ungraded exams is getting smaller. After grading an excellent exam, I usually do the next one right away. When I get to a not-excellent one or one that is difficult to read, I tend to go back to the lab activity sooner.

Still to do: the alchemical transformation of number grades to letter grades.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Who Takes Care of Your Kids When You Travel?

My husband and I have both been traveling a lot lately, and our various travels have involved some amazing choreography so that one of us was home with our daughter at all times. We only had one close call in which my flight was canceled one morning on a day when my husband was flying out that same night, and the airline first rescheduled me for a flight the following day. I did get home that day, so it all worked out. We have friends who would step in and help in an emergency, so it wouldn't have been a disaster if I hadn't been able to get on the afternoon flight.

At an end-of-year departmental party today, two (2) different people asked me who takes care of my daughter when I'm traveling. No one ever asks my husband or me who takes care of her when he is out of town. I have written about this before, but the phenomenon never ceases to amaze me. Both times today when I was asked this question, I said "Guess" and both times the first guess was that a grandmother visits. Guess again.

I found this question irritating but not too shocking when my daughter was a baby, as perhaps the questioner was acknowledging how challenging it is for one person to take care of a baby. Now I just think it is bizarre. Do they really think a father can't take care of an elementary school-aged kid? I have friends whose husbands have never taken care of their kids alone, but I am sure these guys could do it.

Friday, May 04, 2007

This Is Your Brain After Grading

Has anyone ever done a study of the effect of grading on brain function? That is, has anyone does a study in which someone has their head wired to various devices while they grade, and then the images of brain function from the start of grading to the end of grading are compared to see what brain sectors are damaged? Is the damage temporary or permanent? Does the degree of damage correlate with how the students did on the exam or homework assignment? Is it safe to operate a motor vehicle after grading?

The effects of grading somehow feel different than other repetitive activities. Some of my research activities involve fairly tedious and repetitive tasks, but that type of thing doesn't feel as brain damaging as grading. I think brain scans would show different results for grading vs. other tedious activities, but perhaps I am not thinking clearly after grading tonight.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Gray Area

One of my NSF proposals seems to be lingering in The Gray Area, that no-news-is-good-news place and time when not hearing about the proposal by this point means the proposal wasn't outright rejected and it might be funded (or not). After this summer I will still have 2 active NSF grants, so if this proposal isn't funded, my research program will still be fine. Even so, it would be very great if a new student and I could start on this project this summer or fall. I want to do all the projects that make it into proposals I submit, but some are more thrilling to contemplate than others, and this is one of the thrilling ones. It's the first submission for this particular project, so I know it is quite possible that it won't be funded this time.

I am trying not to think about it too much, but at least once a day someone asks me "Have you heard about that proposal?", and when I say no, everyone always says "You must be in The Gray Area." Yes, that is clearly where my proposal and I are right now.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

You Know You're Socially Inept When..

You know you're socially inept when you are happy when the dental hygienist goes back to torturing your teeth so that you can stop making chit-chat, a skill you do not possess in abundance.

Actually, my very nice dental hygienist and I found common ground today on the topic of how to schedule fun and interesting activities for our kids during the summer. Our kids go to some of the same summer day camps, and we compared notes on which ones our kids like best, which ones fill up within hours of registration opening in FEBRUARY, and which ones only go until 4:30 each day, making it difficult for the kids of working parents to participate. We shared amazement over the fact that we have to start organizing our summers starting in February. My husband and I try to organize our daughter's summer with a good balance of camps, unstructured time at home with one or both of us, and travel. It all works out, but it requires a lot of organizing far in advance, something else at which I don't excel.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

My Flaws As a Blogger and an Alleged Human

Here are some things that some readers hate about this blog and its author:

1 - I am anonymous and this indicates a weakness of character, perhaps even sneakiness and dishonesty. This confirms what some people think about academics, women, scientists etc. My anonymity raises the question of whether I am really a professor -- or even a female professor -- rather than a disgruntled clerical worker or ... worse. [remember the classic New Yorker cartoon with the dogs? 'On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.'] Maybe I am not even human.

I (and many others) have written about the anonymity issue before and I will not repeat all that here.

2 - And speaking of dogs, there is no picture of me. I could be ugly! If I am ugly, everything I have written is invalid, or something. [I've never really understood this line of reasoning -- perhaps because I am ugly! -- but there it is]

3 - I am boring, and may even be 'a drag'. [memo to those I bore: change the channel]

4 - I hate men and do not fully appreciate how difficult their lives are. [the former is clearly not true; the latter might be true]

5 - I do not fully appreciate the significance of faculty meetings and their potential for driving major positive change in academic culture. [I just made that one up]

This list is far from comprehensive of course, but sometimes, in the interests of being systematic, it's just good to make a list. In fact, I have noticed that I have developed a tendency to make lists. This might indicate my organized, scientific approach to life, or it might mean that I am turning into my mother, who has a list fetish. I know which of those possibilities terrifies me more.